Roller coasters that put the theme in theme park

The Verbolten coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., takes riders through the Black Forest, where they might encounter a wolf or a lightning storm.
The Verbolten coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., takes riders through the Black Forest, where they might encounter a wolf or a lightning storm. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via The New York times

When roller coasters made their way from Russia to France nearly 200 years ago, they quickly outshone the more routine amusements at park promenades. They are no less central to modern U.S. theme parks, which by definition seek to unify the thrills under a setting or idea (or commercial brand).

But do roller coasters ever stick to an actual theme?

Yes, you may see a comic-book character’s statue at a ride’s entrance. But when the safety harness lifts up afterward, you’re left with an adrenaline rush instead of an experience that evokes the spirit or energy of that character.

Other coasters incorporate some element of science fiction or fantasy. But they don’t always pull you into that space as you scream your head off on the way down a steep hill. After all, it can be tricky to program a giant structure of steel and wood into a story that makes any sense.

As I travel the country visiting theme parks, I think about how true a ride stays to its mission of telling you a story while making your heart leap, and whether it even matters if it does. For some of my favorite coasters, the only point is the thrill.

But there is something memorable about a roller coaster with a story. These rides, done right, have equal commitment to theme and thrills. They’re not so much character-driven coasters — more like coasters with character. They’re often technically ambitious, immersive, and some combination of thrilling and cinematic.

Below, a guided tour to four standouts.

Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

The plot: In a world where cheetahs hunt things, you are a cheetah on a hunt.

Significant plot point: that moment when you make a speedy vertical jump for your prey.

Want to feel what it’s like to be a predator racing across the Serengeti? The thrilling coaster Cheetah Hunt does a bang-up job of getting you pretty close to it. Using a launch system that propels the train with motors, the coaster sends you speeding right out of the gate without a traditional lift hill.

Before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, the second launch arrives, a 60 mph push up a hill 100 feet above ground, then into a pretzel-style piece of track before plunging you underground.

Cheetah Hunt leaps high and crouches low, exhibiting some of its predatory skills. The ride is smart about the way it slows down before another launch sends you speeding along again. And its detailed landscapes really do make you feel as if you’re racing through the grasslands of Africa. A section of the track that moves just above and along a river, as well as through caverns, is inspired.

Just when you think your hunt is nearly done, you get one more launch up a hill and down through a dale.

This ride seems as much a stand-in for a safari chase as any I’ve been on, mainly because of the element of surprise. You can’t see what the entire ride looks like while waiting in line, so you can’t anticipate the hunt it takes you on.

And with more than three-quarters of a mile of track, that hunt seems to go everywhere.


Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, Universal Studios Hollywood

The plot: You navigate a world where a mummy’s curse may steal your soul.

Significant plot point: that moment where your soul belongs to the mummy and he makes certain you remember it.

Yes, this roller coaster opened 12 years ago when the “ Mummy” film franchise was still a phenomenon. And, yes, it is still one of the most impressive and exciting themed coasters that has ever been built.

This ride comes from a theme park that has plenty of characters to draw from: Universal has rides tied to Jurassic Park, the Hulk, King Kong and Harry Potter. But Universal’s best wholly immersive coaster experience is this extension of the “Mummy” movies.

Here, theatrics and studio-quality visuals start in the indoor queue — there’s mood lighting, ominous sound effects and hieroglyphics. The ride itself includes design concepts by Stephen Sommers, The Mummy film’s screenwriter and director, and a score by composer Alan Silvestri.

It takes you into tombs where you are subject to a mummy’s curse that claims your soul. Prepare for many mummy and warrior animatronics, visual effects, and a high-speed launch into a tense, pitch-black coaster tunnel. One segment sends you backward through the track for even more disorienting fun.

A different version at Universal Orlando has an alternate track layout and additional mummies and elaborate pyrotechnics, like a fire-drenched ceiling.

The Revenge of the Mummy coaster, in the less than two minutes it takes to ride it, manages to be more exciting, more spirited and more creative than any of the films in the franchise.


Expedition Everest, Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The plot: You’re inside a Himalayan mountain trying to avoid a yeti.

Significant plot point: that moment when you realize the track has been tampered with.

Ready to see a yeti? Expedition Everest at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom is the park’s most elaborate, and most entertaining, themed coaster in a park chain with many winning options.

It takes the runaway-mine-train concept that was popularized decades ago in several theme parks and, well, runs away with it.

The ride is inside and around a giant Himalayan mountain that has a slightly more authentic look than other rides, and the peak, at 200 feet, marks the tallest of the 18 mountains in the Disney parks. The train is patterned after an aging steam-engine tea train and carries 34 riders.

The entry to the line for the ride is made to look like a weathered Himalayan Escapes booking office in a village at the base of a mountain. Made with unevenly stacked stones and a distinct attention to detail, the building and those around it just might make you think you’re in Kathmandu. (Disney designers traveled to Nepal to research the region’s architecture.)

As the train climbs its first small lift, you get a peek at the gorgeous waterfall extending from the mountain. That diverts your attention from the first small drop, which takes you to a wooded area and to the next, larger climb. That’s when the fun really begins.

The train track at the end of the lift weaves between two tall spots on the mountain pass before taking you through a mountain tunnel and out to a dead end, where the tracks in front of you are completely busted up (presumably by a certain angry creature). While you puzzle just how you’ll get out of this scenario, the track switches behind you and sends the train backward, plunging deeper inside the mountain and into darkness.

You see a silhouette of the feared yeti before the coaster continues forward again and back outside, down a steep hill. It’s an exhilarating lurch in and out of the mountain with a more detailed view of the monster before ride’s end.

While Expedition Everest isn’t the most intense roller coaster in the world, its attachment to its theme makes it one of the most interesting.


Verbolten, Busch Gardens Williamsburg

The plot: On a journey through the Black Forest, monsters lurk.

Significant plot point: that moment when you enter the deep interiors of the forest and things get really scary.

Europe is the overarching theme of the Busch Gardens park in Williamsburg, Va. Inside the Oktoberfest Village section sits an amusing little roller coaster with an element surprising enough to frighten this hard-to-shock enthusiast.

Verbolten aims to replicate the experience of a scenic drive through the Black Forest in Germany, with a number of environmental elements along the way. You ride on a train that looks like a car (with a camera in each row to record you during your experience). It takes you on a leisurely journey outdoors through a wooded area before you’re launched into the indoor elements of the forest.

Various lighting effects and designs change with each ride, so you may encounter one of three scenarios: the big bad wolf in the forest, a lightning storm or the spirit of the forest.

But a moment that truly floored me is a sequence in the ride where the track hits a dead end. Based on my experience with the Mummy and Expedition Everest coasters, I expected the ride to go backward to get us out of it.

What I did not expect was for the entire track, train and all, to free-fall 18 feet, connecting it with a track below. It’s an exhilarating, if harrowing, piece of coaster technology I had never experienced before, and can’t wait to again.


More new roller coasters

Each year’s class of new coasters promises to break speed and height records. This year’s models are no exception, but this time around, virtual reality is thrown in for good measure.

For maximum thrills, dare to ride the following new rails:

Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia, Calif.): If whipping around on a coaster with a 90-foot-high loop and twists and turns at 55 mph isn’t scary enough, what if that ride took you through a post-apocalyptic world of alien invaders? Wearing virtual-reality headsets, passengers on the New Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain experience the ride from the point of view of a fighter jet in the animated action scenes synced to the movement of the coaster.

SeaWorld Orlando (Orlando, Fla.): Fittingly, the new roller coaster Mako at the aquatic theme park SeaWorld Orlando is modeled on a shark. Billed as Orlando’s tallest coaster, Mako, which rises 200 feet, aims to mimic the movement of a shark. Reaching speeds up to 73 mph, the three-minute thrill is classified as a “hypercoaster,” one that offers successive hills and drops at high speed to produce a sensation of weightless suspension.

Six Flags Over Georgia (Austell, Ga.): Six Flags Over Georgia has just added a virtual-reality experience to its Dare Devil Dive ride. You can ride it tech-free or strap on wireless virtual-reality headsets to whip around in a battle with aliens viewed on the screen. The DC Super Friends-themed area, also new, includes five family-friendly rides and attractions inspired by Superman and the Joker, among others.

Six Flags Great Adventure (Jackson Township, N.J.): The new Joker ride at Six Flags Great Adventure, the park’s 14th coaster, takes passengers on a wild ride in cars that hang off the side of the track. With feet dangling, riders spin in their seats forward or backward regardless of the direction of the ride, a motion known as “free fly,” while the track itself rises 12 stories with two 90-degree-plus drops.

Cedar Point (Sandusky, Ohio): At more than 20 stories tall, Valravn, the 18th roller coaster at Cedar Point, is considered the highest coaster in the world with the fastest dive at 75 mph. Riders who climb the 223-foot initial hill are suspended overlooking the drop for a full, terrifying four seconds before making that speedy plunge. Three inversions, or upside-down flips, follow more than 3,415 feet of track.

Dollywood (Pigeon Forge, Tenn.): The hot-rod-themed Lightning Rod at Dollywood, which just opened, goes from 0 to 45 mph on its initial 20-story climb before falling and reaching speeds up to 73 mph, making it the fastest wooden coaster in the world, according to the park. Riders will get 20 seconds of air time over the course of the 3,800-foot track.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas (San Antonio): Virtual reality comes to the Superman Krypton Coaster at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. On this ride, passengers are transported to a battle between Superman and Lex Luthor via wireless headsets with movement-synchronized animation. You can keep up the adrenaline by making a seven-story and temporarily weightless loop on the park’s second new ride, Fireball.

Elaine Glusac, New York Times News Service